5 strategies to give students an edge, even in pandemic

The NWEA emphasizes the importance of goal setting to keep students attentive, learning and growing
By: | September 1, 2020
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Motivating students can be a challenge even in the most structured, unimpeded learning environments. But in this one, with COVID-19 upsetting the balance of normal instruction, it can be far more complex.

Faced with long hours of repetitive virtual learning, students might be more apt to tune out than tune in to teachers. They might be unwilling to challenge themselves or simply shut down if they feel unchallenged or face barriers to learning, such as poor internet connectivity or have slower devices.

Even those who begin the year with in-person learning are facing wholly different, distracting classroom settings and might be worried more about safety and adhering to school-mandated protocols than showing enthusiasm for their subjects. And a bigger problem: many of them fell behind when learning all but stopped during the spring.

The role schools and educators play this year in helping students get the most out of themselves and their work might be its most important yet. If they can help kids leap over those myriad obstacles and inspire them to learn and grow, anything is possible.

“Every student deserves the opportunity to feel successful during this time,” said Chase Nordengren, senior research scientist for NWEA, an organization that supports nearly 10,000 schools and educators in 146 countries. “For some students, returning to grade-level proficiency may not be realistic this year. Students above grade level must also continue to find opportunities to learn and grow.”

The NWEA, which has conducted a pair of research projects on learning loss and the impact of learning during the pandemic, said a tried-and-true method for getting the most out of students still works.

“Goal setting is a key strategy for reaching all students by finding opportunities for challenge and success at every level of proficiency,” Nordengren says. “With academic targets that are short-term, relevant, and independent, they can recognize the fruits of their labor in ways that keep them motivated to learn more.”

Five strategies to bolster students

In its most recent work “Goal Setting Is a Key Element to Mitigating COVID-19-Related Impacts on Learning”, the NWEA says teachers will play a big part in ensuring that goals can be achieved for all students – the ones who did well during abbreviated virtual learning in March, April and May as well as those who struggled to either meet targets or simply couldn’t reach them because of inhibiting variables.

At the heart of its message is this: motivation can be a linchpin for students to take ownership of their own learning. Teachers can help push this along, the NWEA says, by working alongside students to “examine past learning, set short-term targets for additional learning, and plan the specific academic and social-emotional steps needed to get there.”

In its guidance and through its own research, Nordengren and the NWEA have offered these five strategies that can help educators reach and motivate students in both in-person and remote learning environments:

  1. Start Early: Goal setting should start as early as kindergarten. While students may not be ready to set individual academic goals, teachers can set classroom wide goals for behavior and skill development.
  2. Do it Often: Short-term goals, usually lasting no longer than four to six weeks, enable frequent check-ins with students. This allows the frequent revision of goals based on student progress, preventing students from feeling discouraged.
  3. Make it Visual: Developing a variety of visual tools and artifacts help solidify a goal-setting culture. For example, utilizing the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) acronym to write an effective goal.
  4. Make it Relevant: Do student goals match up with the learning goals for their grade, development level, and them as a person?
  5. Center Student Choice. And finally, student ownership of learning is maximized where students feel a sense of agency and choice.

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com